One of the main strands in my portfolio career is my work as writing coach. Which means that in addition to thinking a lot about the craft of writing, I’m also constantly proffering advice on how to edit.
Most people hate editing. Unlike writing, where you can and should let your ideas flow without judgment, editing is all about discipline. I think Ernest Hemingway summed up the distinction between these two phases of the writing process best when he counselled: “Write drunk. Edit sober.”
Accordingly, this week’s tips list goes out to all of you fellow travelers who have something you need to edit – a poem…a short story…heck, even an office memo – and need to find your mojo.
Here are five tips for editing your writing:
1. Take time off after the first draft. This crucial piece of advice comes from Stephen King in his fabulous, incredibly useful, not-to-be-missed book, On Writing. (Did I tell you how much I liked it?) King recommends that novelists take four to six weeks off after finishing a manuscript so that they can come back to it fresh. But I’d say that, if you can manage it, you should take even longer. The reason for waiting is that you want to be able to open your manuscript up and read it like anyone else would. You don’t want to be able to recite it line by line. That’s the only way to figure out what works, what needs fixing and what should be tossed in the bin. You may even surprise yourself. As a screenwriter friend once told me, “There will be things that will be better than you thought they were and things that will be worse.”
2. Find ways to make the material new. When you’re in re-write mode, it’s really important to make the old draft feel new. If you’re writing fiction, you might decide to write a biography of all of your characters to make them come alive…again. I particularly liked this piece of advice from American novelist Christina Baker Kline. Kline recommends that if you wish to jumpstart a revision for fiction, you write three new openings. In each opening, you start from a different moment in the story – maybe even at the very end. What a great idea!
3. Trim excess words. We all know that editing requires cutting excess verbiage. But how to wield that axe is another story entirely. One of the best writing assignments I ever got was in a high school English class. We were told to write an essay of 1,000 words on a given topic. The next week, we came in and the teacher told us to write the same essay, this time in 500 words. Boy, does that exercise help you to discover what you love most about your writing. Another good tip if you’re looking to be more concise comes from the Write to Done blog: Start with the first sentence. Take out the first word and read the sentence. Does it still make sense and carry the same idea across? Yes? Then leave it out. Repeat. Skeptical? Try it. I just went through the intro of this blog and cut out loads of words that didn’t need to be there.
4. Read your writing out loud. On the topic of reading your work aloud, David Sedaris says: “When I hear myself reading out loud, I hear things I don’t hear when I read (silently) to myself. When I read aloud, I always have a pencil in hand. If I feel I’m trying too hard, or I’m being repetitive, I make a mark.” Another reason to read your writing aloud is that it also helps with voice. You not only hear the repetition, you can also hear whether you sound too stilted, too casual, too funny or too sharp. I think this is why I like Sandra Tsing Loh so much as a writer. (Not incidentally, both she and Sedaris frequently perform their work on radio.) They are writers who have really honed their voice. I’m sure it took a lot of re-writing to get there.
5. Don’t send it off too soon. Stephen King has a great metaphor for the writing process. He talks about writing “with the door open” vs. writing “with the door closed.” What he means is that the first draft is really for you, the writer, to get your thoughts down on the page. But at a certain point, you need to bring in other people to offer feedback. One of the biggest mistakes writers make is to spend endless amounts of time on the “closed door” phase of writing, and give short shrift to the “open door” phase. Here’s Victoria A. Mixon, with a cautionary tale on what happens when you send your draft out too soon:
You know what my first agent said about the draft I sent her of my first novel?
“I love this paragraph.”
Months later, after the manuscript had cooled off, I re-read the whole thing and was absolutely horrified.
I called her to apologize, and she responded (rather callously, I must say), “See what I had to wade through?”
Yikes. What works for you when you’re editing?
Image: Mistakes editing school via Needpix